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4 Things Science Says You Can Do to Be Happy

Being nice and in the natural world is conducive to happiness. Being alone in the virtual world isn't.
4 Things Science Says You Can Do to Be Happy
Image credit: Hero Images | Getty Images

People spend years chasing happiness, only to learn the hard way that it wasn’t where they thought it was. They assume career success, riches, retirement or the “perfect relationship” will bring the happiness they’ve always wanted. In the process, they miss the enjoyable moments all around them.

But what will make you happy? To find out, we turned to one of the best resources available today. Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education has devoted considerable effort to studying “the positive qualities of the human mind.” In the process, the team at Stanford regularly releases studies that quantify happiness. Here are a few things Stanford researchers have learned over the past few years.

1. Be compassionate.

Stanford has a longstanding research interest in the connection between practicing compassion and achieving happiness. The medical school offers an eight-week course called Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT), that teaches attendees how to develop a more compassionate attitude. In a study to determine the program’s usefulness, they found that it led to an increase in both mindfulness and happiness. The training, the study authors said, emphasizes the benefits of connecting with fellow human beings to a person’s overall well-being.

You don’t have to spend every weekend doing charity work to achieve happiness, however. Simply find ways in your everyday life to be more compassionate. Listen to others when they’re speaking and truly work to see things from other people’s perspectives.

Related: How to Fire Employees With Compassion

2. Spend time in nature.

When was the last time you took a walk through the park or spent the afternoon by the pool? While it’s important to minimize sun exposure, Mother Nature brings many benefits, both physical and emotional. One of those benefits is an improved affect, according to a study led by Stanford University’s Gregory N. Bratman.

The study separated participants into one group that spent their outdoor time in urban settings and a second that took nature walks. Those who took the nature walk showed a marked improvement in overall well-being, including a decrease in anxiety and worry. If you don’t have easy access to a hiking area, consider taking your lunch to a nearby park or waterfront area.

Related: Why You Should Start Taking a Proper Lunch Break

3. Disconnect from social media.

People are constantly connected to other people through social media, even when they’re trying to enjoy “alone time.” Stanford University psychology researchers set out to determine just how contagious negativity is. Unfortunately, people aren’t as good at guessing the moods of others as we might think they are. The researchers discovered that people overestimate how happy other people are, leading them to assume that other people’s lives are better than they actually are.

Social media is especially dangerous to happiness. Time spent on social media has been connected to prevalence of depression and anxiety. Make a concerted effort to stay off social media, especially if you find yourself unfavorably comparing yourself to others. As a test, try to stay away for a few days and see if your mood begins to improve.

Related: The Shocking Lessons I Learned After I Quit My Social Media Addiction in 3 Days in the Desert

4. Search for meaning.

Philosophers have long pondered the meaning of life, and they aren’t the only ones. One Stanford study attempted to find the link between meaningfulness and happiness and found that while they’re different, they also overlap. Someone can find meaningfulness while still being unhappy. For instance, someone may work as an activist or social worker and find great meaning but still feel unhappy.

At the same time, someone who is self-involved may find that he or she feels happy while living a life that doesn't have much meaning. The idea is that it's important to look for ways to live a meaningful life while also finding what makes you happy. Based on the results of the study, some things that make people happier include focusing on the present rather than the past or future and spending time with those who make you feel happy.

Happiness is not easily defined, but science tells us what has been shown to boost our own well-being. Each person’s definition of happiness will differ, so it’s most important to find the key to happiness for you and eliminate the obstacles that are keeping you from living the happiest life you can.